Many in Cecil sighed with relief when 1963, an eventful year full of ups and downs, came to an end. As people reflected on that November nearly fifty years ago, they recalled the opening of the modern expressway, President John F. Kennedy’s visit, and the unbelievable news flashes eight days later. An assassin’s bullet had struck the youthful president down in Dallas. So, as the county grieved and the calendar turned on that troubling month, people thought it couldn’t get any worse.
There were wrong. On a terrible December night Pan-American World Airways Flight 214 exploded, plunging into a cornfield at the edge of Elkton. On that cold, rainy Sunday, as lightning periodically illuminated the town, eighty-one people perished when the big plane broke apart in flight and debris rained down on a cornfield. Hours later, while rescuers combed the wreckage, a county firefighter, Steward W. Godwin of the North East Volunteer Fire Company, suddenly collapsed and died.
This horrifying disaster, the worst airplane crash in Maryland history, is something that is seared into the collective memory of the community, as well as friends and relatives of victims. People involved in this tragedy will never forget the unusual December thunderstorm and how the fiery blast in the stormy sky suddenly illuminated the town, momentarily turning December darkness into daylight. Fear, anxiety, and concern swept across the unnerved community as sirens filled the night air with emergency units rushing toward Delancy Road to provide aid to the injured. It was soon obvious to first responders that the accident wasn’t survivable.
On Sunday, afternoon Dec., 8, 2013, the Historical Society of Cecil County will hold a remembrance program to honor the memory of those who lost their lives on a day we will never forget, as well as those who were touched in other ways by the tragedy. On this date, fifty years after the tragedy altered so many lives, families, emergency responders, and the public are invited to gather and remember the victims and those who answered the call to help. A complete schedule will be released as the date nears, but since many family members will be traveling a distance, the society is providing this preliminary information.
The Rev. Hubert Jicha and retired school superintendent Henry Schaffer will facilitate the program. Henry, a 16-year old at the time of the crash, was one of the first responders. The afternoon will include the sharing of memories, outtakes from the oral history collection, and displays of materials from the Society library.
As part of our mission to chronicle Cecil’s past, our volunteers have been busy creating a remembrance archive. A major part of this involves interviewing witnesses, residents of the area and family members and it also involves collecting research materials. We have already done a lot of work and have found that with the greatest clarity, this searing incident is clearly imprinted on a generation of Cecil County residents.
On Saturday, Dec. 7th, we will open up the Flight 214 listening station. During half-hour appointments, people will be invited to privately share their stories about the tragedy. Our oral historians will be at the recording booths, listening to people, asking a few questions, and recording the conversation. We will add these stories — whatever people want to share — to the archives, as a half-century is passed. We are still working on the details so watch the Society’s blog for updates.
For family members, seeking additional details, we have established a special email address where we will keep you informed as plans progress. The email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Also since we are planning a private reception for the families, we ask you to contact us by email so we can share some additional information. But also keep an eye on the blog as we will post routine, regular updates for everyone.